“THE MUZEH OF TEHRAN: strange, but unique”, read the critical text by Luiz Camillo Osorio

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Tehran, inaugurated in 1977, gathers a collection that includes some of the most iconic nomes of modern and contemporary western art. It contains works by artists such as Picasso, Andy Wahrol and Raushenberg; a collection of over a thousand works acquired largely during the oil crisis and which survived the Islamic Revolution. With such a diverse collection, which also includes historical and contemporary works of Iran, the challenge of the museum is to propose a curatorship that explores and approaches these works carefully and creatively. “The opportunity to acquire a superlative number of canonical works of the western modernist and contemporary art traditions ended up creating a unique collection which requires original curatorial reflection”, states Osorio. “Combining works of art from different traditions must be encouraged, but done so based on cultural specificities in order to avoid creating false approximations of a merely formal character”, he says.


THE MUZEH OF TEHRAN: strange, but unique

by Luiz Camillo Osorio

In 2012, at a conference held by the Iranian curator, Tirdad Zolghadr, during the meeting of CIMAM in Istanbul, I heard for the first time, and with great surprise, the story of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Tehran (TMoCA), known locally as Muzeh. An image shown by him of the exhibition space left a strong impression – a large mobile by Calder floating in a semi-dark span in front of two portraits of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. The whole story of how the collection was formed and the mysterious developments following the Islamic Revolution form part of a fascinating and little known chapter of the world of art and contemporary geopolitics.

Inaugurated in 1977, by order of the Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Shah Reza Pahlavi, its collection was purchased at the principal galleries of New York, London, and Paris, following the oil crisis of 1973 – which was responsible for a major slump in the western art market. A lot of oil and amenable prices rendered the Iranian venture unique in the world of art. The collection contains over a thousand works of modern and contemporary western art – some 30 Picassos, dozens of Jasper Johns, Rauschenbergs and Warhols, not to mention the impressionists, post-impressionists, abstract expressionists etc. Which is to say, sufficient to make any “first world” museum pay attention. The inaugural exhibition, in 1977, was a solo show by the English pop artist, David Hockney.

After the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, the museum and its collection were placed in storage. Many people believed that the western collection had been destroyed. With the greatest opening up of the Iranian regime since 1997, the museum began to show its collection and western commissions started to visit it, as well as those interested in buying its works. All these buyers ended up falling on their faces. No work was sold, and none disappeared. In fact, only one work was destroyed – a portrait of the Empress done by Warhol which was fatally stabbed. Later, in 1994, there was an exchange of a painting by De Kooning from 1950 for a 500-year-old book of Islamic miniatures, which belonged to an American collection. This same painting was sold by its new owner, in 2006, for 137 million dollars, a record for a De Kooning.

It’s interesting to think of the project of the Muzeh as a parallel of two of its contemporary museums – the Pompidou in Paris and the New Museum in New York, all inaugurated in 1977. Much of what we know today in the globalized world of art began to be sketched out there, namely: (1) new historical narratives for modern and contemporary art; (2) other less regulated forms of articulating artistic languages and thinking about collections; (3) the global expansion of expositional models (including the franchising of museums); (4) the interdependence between museums and the art market, as a form of institutional funding in the light of the crisis in public policies for culture; (5) and the bold architecture of museums as a platform for urban renewal and the gentrification of cities. The case of the Museum of Tehran is the one which lies furthest off the scale since, despite being a megalomaniac project of the oppressive regime of the Pahlavis, it left a collection that merits multiple re-readings and new dialogues. There is an opportunity here which could be unique.  

The modernist design by the architect Kamran Diba (a cousin of the Empress) combines traces of a certain architectural brutalism with decorative details from local tradition. The Iranian museum occupies 5 thousand square meters of exhibition space, descending by a ramp into the basement as if it were a vast subterranean Guggenheim. On fleeing Tehran, after the revolution, for Rome, where he still lives – the architect was the first director of the Muzeh he abandoned the inventory, with the works catalogued, at home. It was never recovered. The fact that the collection survived this initial – radically anti-western – period was a miracle. Which was certainly assisted by the sacerdotal dedication of Firouz Shabazi Moghadam, initially contracted to install the linoleum on the floor of the museum. In 1977 he was made responsible for looking after the works. Lacking any prior knowledge of art, he began to study the works and their artists and cared for the collection as best he could for the next 30 years. Recently, two years after his retirement, he was brought back to the museum to help catalogue the entire collection, which also included major works of Iranian and middle-eastern art.  

Less historicist arrangements of collections and a less conventional vision of what might be shown in a contemporary museum were at play when the Muzeh was created, at the end of the 1970s. The meaning of the word “contemporary” itself began to emerge as a question, beyond implying a mere belonging to the present. In some way, the contemporary served as an alternative to escape from historic determinisms and the monopoly of the formalist reading of modern art without falling into post-modern, anything goes territory. How is it possible to maintain experimental vitality, how can one represent political conflicts and, at the same time, incorporate multi-cultural values, heterogeneous temporalities and, above all, express multiple, problematic and ambivalent connections between local narratives and the globalized system of art? The challenges are immense and they remain more alive than ever.  

Investing in diversity doesn’t ensure the problematization of hegemonic cultural forms; the most important thing is to alter modes of narrating the past based on the opening up of new poetic, political and affective imaginaries. Combining works of art from different traditions must be encouraged, but done so based on cultural specificities in order to avoid creating false approximations of a merely formal character. Having a collection that combines quality and diversity is an essential step towards achieving curatorial autonomy and the possibility of original assemblages. It is increasingly difficult for museums to buy major works.

In the case of TMoCA, the opportunity to acquire a superlative number of canonical works of the western modernist and contemporary art traditions ended up creating a unique collection which requires original curatorial reflection. This makes the museum a very different case from the current reality where western collections are loaned to Arab museums as a funding strategy using archaic expositional formats. The strangeness of seeing the portraits of the Ayatollahs with the mobile by Calder is an indication that there is a unique opportunity in this museum and that it has a unique repertoire to experiment with unique combinations.

As noted by Alireza Sami-Azar, who ran the museum as head curator between 1998 and 2005, one of the great obsessions of the first generation of artists born after 1979 was the sense of the contemporary that was displaced from Islamic identity. Following the period of isolation, “the emergence of this new generation with their keenness for the latest artistic materials was not only a result of those restrictions but also because Modernism in art had reached an impasse. As an action opposing this artistic dogmatism, where the need was obvious, the first exhibition of ‘Conceptual Art’ was an important event in Iran”.

Having a museum with a collection like that of TMoCA represents a unique opportunity for the museum to participate critically in the multiplication of the narratives of the contemporary in art. How can one connect it with the local context, how can one rethink the narratives of the modern and the contemporary based on heterogeneous historic narratives, how does one incorporate art into the search for new models of society; all this makes this museum a case to be closely monitored. What a shame that the Trump administration is pushing Iran into further isolation, and hindering the movement of its artists and also of this incomparable collection.      


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.

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